Overeating is like drug addiction, and drug addiction is like overeating.  That’s the message in a recent story from NPR where they quote a Yale scientist who says:

“The motivation to take cocaine in the case of a drug addict is probably engaging similar circuits that the motivation to eat is in a hungry person.”

Well, why would you think the two behaviors were that different in the first place?  Whether you’re using too many drugs or eating too much food, these behaviors are essentially the same – they are both simple over-indulgence in an activity.  What’s not so simple, is our culture’s determination to classify such behavior as a disease and/or compulsion.  The reasons behind people’s over-indulgence in drugs and food are clear, not only do drugs and food help to relieve stress and other daily problems of the human condition, they also provide physical pleasure.  Lacking effective ways to deal with stress, anxiety, and boredom – many people overindulge in drugs and food as a means to deal with these problems (however short-term these solutions may be).  Likewise, lacking effective ways to find real happiness in life, many people opt to simulate happiness with a string of cheap thrills or pleasures delivered by food or drugs (or sex, shopping, gambling, risk-taking…….).  Given this self-evident explanation of “addiction” it’s a mystery why anyone would lobby so hard to portray this behavior as having anything to do with a disease, chemical imbalance, or genetic abnormality – yet they continue to scream that every human problem is a “disease”.

Further on in the piece they offer up some studies on mice as proof of their theories:

“What we found is that in animals that were obese, there were really dramatic changes in these areas of the brain that participate in telling us how rewarding food is,” Reyes says. The changes made these areas less responsive to fatty foods, so an obese mouse would have to eat more fat than a typical mouse to get the same amount of pleasure, she says.

And some of the changes didn’t go away, even when the mice returned to a normal diet.

“So it is similar to what happens in cases of chronic drug abuse,” Reyes says. “The reward circuitry changes in a similar way, and that promotes the seeking of that drug, or in our case, in seeking palatable food.”

Now, what they’re describing is simple tolerance – the phenomenon that when you get used to doing something to a particular level, it loses it’s effect, and you need more of the thing to get what you used to get out of it (which could be stress relief, a thrill, physical pleasure, etc).  I’m unsure how this could ever rationally justify that a given behavior is a disease – as all things in life lose their punch as we do them more.  For example, I enjoy skiing and snowboarding, I’ve done these things since I was 3 years old, and surprise – I’m not satisfied with skiing down the beginner trail all day long anymore!  When I ski now, I want to ski longer distances, I want to challenge myself with steeper terrain, and I want to go faster.  Are my current skiing habits indicative of a disease?  I’m sure the muscles I use for skiing have physically changed and grown stronger, I’m sure the parts of my brain that are active while skiing have changed, but I still don’t think that makes it a disease.

In short, I don’t think that the brain changes they cite as evidence of disease are relative to understanding either the course of addiction or a solution to it.  I think they’re a completely unnecessary component to the discussion, and that they’re not an oddity at all.  Discussing these very average physical functions of the body and brain can only muddy our understanding of addiction.  It’s time to apply Ockham’s Razor, and strip the dead weight from the discussion (the dead weight being these irrelevant facts about brain functions and the assertion that a disease is involved).  Unfortunately though, that probably won’t be happening any time soon.  What I do predict is that we’ll fight to recognize overeating as a disease, and then we’ll do stories on how addiction is like overeating, and therefore a disease.  Then we’ll observe the same average physiological aspects of sex, and compare that to either overeating or addiction, then shopping, then gambling, then gaming, etc – and go on and on incestuously comparing them to each other until we’ve described every human behavior as the result of disease – without ever having based this disease claim on any sort of rational argument.  A description of the inner workings of the brain during a bad behavior is not proof that the behavior is a disease – EVERYTHING we do involves our brain, thus it is a given that we could describe those processes, and that they are not abnormal.  Furthermore, it is bad practice to compare mice to men in matters of decision-making because they lack the degree of advanced brain power that human beings possess.

If we are to find solutions for addictions of all types, trying to cure an imaginary disease will only block our progress on this path by sending us on a wild goose chase.  We must strip out the unnecessary parts of the argument, and look to what we can verify:  people do these things to meet their needs for happiness and excitement, they also do them to resolve stress and anxiety.  If we can find and teach them better ways to meet these needs and solve these problems, then they will be less likely to engage in these addictive behaviors – bottom line.  It is that simple.

Follow this link to learn more about the problems with the Brain Disease Model of Addiction.

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